Recently, our dog stopped breathing. His heart stopped pumping. I was there and I gave permission to a doctor to make this happen. Sable was just short of 15 (dog) years (105 people years) and he had suddenly and radically fallen ill. Faced with a choice to keep him alive in the hopes that he might miraculously get better or to release him from his mortal coil, I held him in my arms, cried and heaved as his soul freed himself from a beautiful, long life in his elegant, corporal form. My wife, Harriet, and I were at odds about this decision with me wanting to keep trying, but at the end we both agreed that we had to do what was right for Sable.
The night before Sable would die, I stayed up with him despite my own illness. I had decided that he should not be alone in his greatest time of need. He was scared. Neither he nor I slept that night. He did not dream due to overwhelming pain and I could not sleep due to devastating sorrow. A member of my wife's family had recently died and my wife was still mourning that passing. As the night slid into its greatest depth, I thanked Sable over and over for being such a good friend. I held his paw, his head, kissed him and reassured him that he would be alright. In the middle of his shadow, he stopped panting, stopped hurting and looked directly into my eyes. He bathed in my soul to reassure me. I do not know what he was feeling. I would only be projecting my own emotion onto him and that would be a lie. But what I can tell you is that while looking into those powerful dark eyes, the night stood on its head, the house dared not breathe. Sable and I had crossed an infinite boundary into an eternal emerald field.
Then he returned to his suffering and me to my spiraling grief. Just a few weeks earlier Sable was a vibrant, old dog who assured us each day that we were his flock and nothing would harm us. He barked at every perceived and imagined threat, even if he physically was no longer able to track his prey. Sable was bred as a sheepdog - a Shetland collie. Sheepdogs are fearless and will take on all potential predators.
One day I was beside myself at not being able to keep an appointment with my daughter who I hadn't seen in quite some time and who I missed. Life's excesses had once again converged in my heart and I simply had to cancel our time together. Sable, who by then was having trouble standing, roused himself from the other room, took a giant step up to our kitchen where I was sitting, head in hands and merely stood beside me. Projection or not I knew that he had come to absorb my sorrow. He had done this for my wife and me many times and this was but the latest instance. He embodied compassion.
Night fled before light and an exceptionally warm, autumn day was born. Harriet awoke and came to where Sable and I were in our living room. She was shocked at what she saw. Sable looked awful, in dire pain, but as soon as she appeared, he wagged his tail and paid attention. I took him out into our backyard on the last 3 legs that still functioned, hardly able to bear his weight. Then he came back in, went directly to our bedroom to the place where he normally slept, laid down, closed his eyes and went to sleep. It was the first time in 24 hours that he was at peace. I delayed our trip to the Vet in the hopes that somehow this was a sign of recovery.
When I would take Sable to the dog run he would never join the barking, playful, chaotic pack. Instead, he walked with his silent, regal bearing amongst his flock ensuring they would not escape. Inevitably he would choose a much smaller dog, assuming it was a sheep and try to keep him or her in place. I didn't have the heart to tell Sable that everyone was fenced in and that escape was not an option. My wife said that he looked like an elderly John Quincy Adams, statesman supreme, wandering the halls of Congress.
This story is not unique. Many families have had the heartbreaking task of putting their beloved pet to sleep to prevent further suffering. In Sable's case he could no longer walk, he had stopped eating and could hardly drink. I don't know much about dogs, but I do know that we humans are blessed to have them by our side. They fill our isolation with unconditional love, compassion and loyalty. They are our lesson. We are their slow students.